Leisure, the (Lost) Basis of American Progress

with Benjamin Hunnicutt
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Guest Introduction.

My guest today is the historian and professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa, Ben Hunnicutt.

His scholarship focuses on a simple, perplexing question: why, after 100 years of shortening working weeks, did America abandon the pursuit of leisure?

I feverishly read two of his books - Work Without End, and Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream - that chronicle the history of the relationship between America’s political economy and the pursuit of leisure time for all.

He brings the precision of a historian together with the sensibility of a poet (nowhere more visible than his deep study of Walt Whitman) to make sense of a fascinating time period during which America changed its mind.

In our conversation, we cover:

  • The history of the ideas of shorter working weeks and leisure time from 1830 until today.
  • The difference between “economic progress” and “higher progress”.
  • How children who spend more time at play grow into adults better suited to handle leisure time
  • The psychologies of labor and leisure
  • Strategies to reintroduce leisure into the U.S. political economy.


Time map.

5 - Would more leisure time mean more, or less, innovation?

8:15 - What is the ‘great mystery of leisure’?

15:20 - What is “higher progress'“?

25 - “Liberation capitalism” and the experience economy.

34 - What happened during 1930 - 1980 that our cultural attitudes towards leisure did a full reversal?

38:30 - Work evolves from a means to an end; Kellogg factory’s 6-hour workday.

40:30 - Exploring the connection between the ‘decline of leisure’ and ‘the decline of play’.

46: Play as a meta-emotion, a framework within which we can safely learn to manage other emotions contained within the play framework.

49: By the 1980’s progressive social scientists like B.F. Skinner begin wondering how to graft the pursuit of autonomy and freedom that once belonged to leisure, on to the structure of modern work.

55:20 - Rutger Bregman and the pygmalion effect: the assumptions baked into a system influence outcomes towards those assumptions.

1:02:00 - Ram Dass and Jonathan Edwards: we’re growing so nauseated with our ideology of work, but don’t know how to do something more.

1:08:00 - Andre Gorz and the “ontological multi-dimensionality of existence”

1:10:00 - Wealth dynamics, redistribution & pre-distribution.

Links from the conversation.
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